Monday, February 24, 2003

Making it on the outside: Part 2

Sometimes the old life still pulls at parolee

The Enquirer followed parolee Joe Lowry for a year as he worked to turn his life around. This is his story.

Second of three parts

By Dan Horn
The Cincinnati Enquirer

The young man rocks in his chair, talking about his days on the street as a crack addict.

Joe Lowry sits a few feet away, staring at the floor. He's having a hard time staying awake.

It's late May, and Joe has been attending group drug counseling sessions at the Crossroads treatment center in Corryville. He used to drink beer and smoke pot every day, but he's convinced the sessions are a waste of time.

"I used to sell drugs," he told his counselor at the last session. "That don't mean I was an addict."

Attending the sessions is one of many conditions of Joe's parole. He could be sent back to prison if he doesn't show up.

And going back to prison would cost him everything: his freedom, his girlfriend and any chance of a better life on the outside. He has responsibilities now. His girlfriend, Rhonda, is three months pregnant.

The young crack addict is still talking when Joe's cell phone goes off. The caller ID shows it's from Good Samaritan Hospital.

"Sorry," Joe says to the group, standing up. "I've got to take this."

It's Rhonda, but her voice is different, shaky. "Baby," she says, "something's wrong."

A wave of panic washes over Joe. Rhonda tells him she started having cramps walking home from her job at Wendy's. Now she's bleeding. The doctor says she's losing the baby.

Joe is miles away from the hospital and doesn't have a car.

"It'll be OK," he tells her.

They agree to meet back at their apartment in Over-the-Rhine. Joe is waiting when the cab brings Rhonda home.

"I had a miscarriage," Rhonda says, slumping onto the couch.

Joe hugs her and says he's sorry. He had been worried about whether they were ready for a baby, whether they could afford it. The baby had become the focal point of his larger task of staying clean, holding down a job, and making all his appointments with the drug program and his parole officer.

Slowly, he had started to warm to the idea of having a child with Rhonda. After all they have been through, including his three years in prison, it was good.

They were supposed to hear the baby's heartbeat for the first time next week.

"We wasn't ready for it, I guess," Rhonda says. "We're struggling now. We'd be struggling more with a baby."

Joe pulls her close, holds her.

"We'll try again," she says.

Rhonda barks out orders as Joe pushes their new couch across the living room.

"This way," she says, pointing. "Over there, against the wall."

"C'mon, baby," Joe pleads. "It's heavy."

When the couch is in place, Joe stands and wipes the sweat from his face. It's only the middle of June, but already their apartment is sweltering.

"It looks good," Rhonda says, admiring their new couch, chair and end tables. The gray cloth furniture, some of it still wrapped in plastic, stands out against walls covered with peeling white paint.

The furniture cost almost $1,500 and has been on layaway for months. They paid a little at a time by setting aside money from their paychecks.

It's the largest purchase Joe has made since getting out of prison six months earlier.

A few years ago, when he was a drug dealer in the West End, he could have made $1,500 in a single week. Back then, he would have walked into the furniture store with a wad of cash and walked out with whatever caught his eye.

"We did this the right way," Rhonda tells him. "We saved up."

"Yeah," Joe says. "But this really set us back."

Joe is still getting used to living on a budget.

He makes about $300 a week working for a small construction contractor, and Rhonda brings home less than half that.

Every month they pay $350 in rent, $50 for utilities and about $400 for groceries and other expenses. They don't have cable TV or a hard phone line, and their only frills are a PlayStation 2 and a stereo Joe got from a friend for $100.

Joe sits on his new couch and watches Rhonda walk around the apartment. He's starting to feel comfortable. "I'm gonna paint in here," Joe declares. "The front room is gonna be gray, and the kitchen is gonna be white."

Joe has seen how some of his neighbors live, caught glimpses through half-open doors. He's seen mattresses on kitchen floors, food and dishes overflowing from sinks. That's not for him and Rhonda.

"We need some cookware," Rhonda says. "And a bedspread."

She smiles and walks over to Joe. "I want a Martha Stewart bedspread," she says, playfully pushing on Joe's chest.

"Awwww, baby," Joe says, smiling. "I don't want no Martha Stewart."

Bam, bam, bam.

Joe sits bolt upright in bed. It's 7:30 a.m. on June 21, a Friday morning. Someone is pounding on the apartment door.

Bam, bam, bam.

"What the hell is that?" Rhonda says, still half-asleep. "Is that the police?"

Joe walks slowly to the door and leans close to the peephole. It's his parole officer, Brian Sweeney. "Open up, Joe!"

He unlocks the door and Sweeney strides in, looking even more serious than usual. "You've done some things that might be considered parole violations," Sweeney says.

Joe tugs at his pants and rubs his face, trying to wake up. He doesn't like the sound of this. Sure, he's struggled with the routine of parole, work and life at home. But he can't think of anything he did that would send him back to prison.

Sweeney tells Joe his drug tests have been clean. The problem is he missed a random test last week. He's supposed to call in to find out if it's his turn to be tested, but he hasn't been doing that every day. He's also skipped two of his drug counseling programs.

"I'm going to have to sanction you," Sweeney says, handing him a form.

YOU HAVE COMMITTED THE FOLLOWING VIOLATION BEHAVIORS, the form reads in bold black letters. Sweeney tells Joe it's only a warning this time, but a first step toward sending him back to prison for 18 months.

As Joe signs the sanction form in the kitchen, Sweeney looks around the apartment. He searches the fridge, the bedroom, the cupboards. Anywhere Joe might have stashed booze or dope or a roll of cash.

Sweeney turns to Rhonda. He's talked to her several times and knows she looks out for Joe. "How's he doing?" Sweeney asks.

To Joe's horror, she starts to talk. "Well, he ain't working enough," she says. "And he spends too much time around here."

Joe can tell she's getting on a roll, and no good can come of that. "C'mon, baby," he says, pleading. "You ain't never happy."

"You aren't gonna give up on him, are you?" Sweeney asks.

Rhonda cracks a smile and shakes her head.

"Nah," she says, "I ain't gonna give up on his sorry ass."

Joe casts a fishing line into the Little Miami River and sits down next to Rhonda, near the campfire. His face is illuminated in firelight.

"Man," he says, looking skyward, "look at all those stars."

Joe's friends made fun of him when he told them he was going fishing with his boss, Ron Ward. They told him he's a city boy and he should stay out of the country.

But Joe wanted to do something different, something that would get him and Rhonda out of the apartment for a while.

He's been pent up there for too long. Some days, he sits for hours in the dark, smoking and playing Grand Theft Auto on his PlayStation 2. Work has been slow, and his hours have been cut. He's got more time on his hands. More time to worry about money, about Rhonda quitting her job at Wendy's, about the shootings and robberies in their neighborhood.

He doesn't go out much. He's afraid he'll catch a stray bullet or get arrested simply by standing on the wrong corner at the wrong time. A guy with his kind of record has to be careful.

So when Ron suggested a fishing trip, Joe jumped at the chance.

He keeps staring heavenward. It's after midnight on a clear July evening, and he's never seen a sky so big or stars so bright.

Rhonda's line bobs suddenly. "I got one! I got one!"

She struggles with it for a moment, then asks Joe for help. He lets out some line, reels it in, lets out more line. Finally, he pulls in the biggest catfish he's ever seen.

"Yeah!" he shouts. "I got this one!"

Ron helps him take the catfish off the hook. He grips it carefully and then releases it.

Joe watches as the fish crashes into the dark water and swims away.

Joe's drug counselor, Kathleen Grant, scribbles a few notes in his file. Joe is sitting across from her desk, close enough to tell she isn't happy.

It's July 23 and he's here for what he hopes is his last counseling session.

"You didn't get anything out of this," Grant tells him, looking up from her notes. He's completed the required program, but she's going to recommend he keep going to meetings.

Joe is furious. Parole is a grind, but he's been trying to follow the rules so he can be released from it by the end of the year. Finishing the drug program would move him closer to that goal.

"I ain't got no problem with drugs," Joe tells Grant. "Just because I caught a drug charge doesn't mean I got a drug problem."

Joe leans forward in his chair, trying to plead his case. "I attended 12 meetings," he says. "I did what I was supposed to do."

Grant is unconvinced. She says Joe almost never spoke up in group meetings. "I don't think," she says, more forcefully this time, "that you were getting anything out of it."

"I can't relate to those people," Joe says. "They got addicted to crack, they shot heroin. I never did that."

He shakes his head, angry and frustrated that Grant still thinks he's like the others in the group sessions. She still sees him as the person he used to be.

"They lost everything, man," Joe says. "They lost their house. They lost their car. Everything."

His voice trails off.

Rhonda is fiddling with the rabbit ears on the TV as Joe walks in from the kitchen. He sits down and takes a swig from a bottle of Sprite.

The place looks better than it has since Joe moved in. He and his boss painted the living room and bedroom a few weeks ago, and Joe put down a $40 swath of scrap carpet in the living room.

He looks around, considering the color scheme. He decides the gray carpet and gray trim are a good match with the gray cloth of the furniture.

Joe's starting to feel at home here. He goes to work. Rhonda pays the bills, shops at Kroger and goes to the Laundromat. On weekends, they might see a movie or shop for a new lamp at Home Depot.

But sometimes the old life still pulls at him.

It's August, and money is tight. His hours at work are still down. He's barely bringing home enough to cover expenses. Rhonda hasn't worked since late June.

"Hey baby," Joe says. "We need to talk."

Rhonda gives up on the TV and sits down.

Joe has been thinking about this conversation quite a bit. In his old life, before prison, he never asked Rhonda for anything. He brought home the money, and they didn't talk about where it came from. But those days are gone.

"I need help," Joe says.

He says he understands she's been depressed about losing the baby, but it's time to think about the future. It's time to think about how they're going to pay the bills next month.

"I'm in a slump," Rhonda says.

Joe looks her in the eye and keeps his voice steady. "We can't afford for you to be in a slump," he says. "Having one person take care of all this, that ain't going to work."

"I know," Rhonda says.

She promises to look for a job.

Joe studies her face, and he can tell she means it.

The letter from the Adult Parole Authority is waiting for Joe when he gets home from work.

It's early September, and things have been a little better. He's getting a few more hours at work and Rhonda finally got a job, one that pays almost $10 an hour.

But Joe is nervous as he opens the letter. He can't imagine good news coming from his parole officer.

"This is to notify you that you may be in violation of your conditions of supervision," the letter says. Seems Joe still owes $160 in supervision fees, and his parole officer wants him to report to the office in Roselawn.

Joe isn't sure if the money is all Sweeney wants to talk about. He lets out a long sigh at the last line.

"Please be advised that a failure to report could result in an arrest order."

E-mail dhorn@enquirer

Part 1: As parolee builds new life, temptations of old abound
Part 3: After years of drug dealing and prison, a new life beckons

Soldier killed in training
Stadium rubble disappearing quickly
Snow emergency call may be dumped locally
Making it on the outside: Part 2

Lessons from a boy's life

Two teens shot outside school
Dozens of Phish fans arrested
West End council waits impatiently
6th grade focus in Finneytown
Scientific whodunits win award

Asset forfeiture improved by Web sales
Ohio Military Reserve needs a few good recruits
Tristate A.M. Report
Good News: All come for birthday, library says
You Asked for It

Nightclub draws controversy
Juvenile centers hit by tax cuts

Ohio Moments: Payne was first black college leader in U.S.
Group seeks registry for 'domestic partners'

Jockeys overcome hurdles
700-home project nears vote
Cities protest plan to take $5M in fines
UK student admits voter card foul-up

New IU president may cost more